DNA Testing Shows Some Veggie Hot Dogs Have a Meaty Secret

Start-up company Clear Labs thinks it has the tech solution to one of the food industry’s biggest problems. By using DNA testing on products, it can preempt recalls of products contaminated with dangerous pathogens or determine whether there have been mix-ups in ingredients that could offend the diet, morals, or religion of unwitting customers. In 2014, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service recalled 18.6 million pounds of meat products alone—a volume that Clear Labs’ technology might be able to reduce if DNA testing were adopted by the industry.

But when TakePart spoke to cofounder Mahni Ghorashi back in September about the potential for the technology to inform consumers, he said, “We’re not a policing or consumer-watch-group-type organization.”

That has apparently changed, as the company launched a Kickstarter campaign on Thursday for a new “authoritative online food guide for consumers” called Clear Food. Much like a consumer watchdog group, it will test an array of products in a category—such as hot dogs—and publish reports on their DNA makeup, issuing scores based on a 100-point scale for the brands that have the deoxyribonucleic acid to match their labeling.

As a tease, the company published a report on hot dogs that shows, on a microscopic scale, you probably don’t want to see how the sausage is made. According to Clear Food, 14.4 percent of hot dogs tested were “problematic,” which could mean a variety of things on a DNA level. One such problem, for vegetarians, is that four of the 21 meatless hot dogs tested contained meat. While that doesn’t necessarily mean companies are slapping vegetarian branding on all-beef franks—we could be talking about very small amounts of trace contamination—the DNA doesn’t lie.

The DNA analysis also found pork substitutes not listed on the ingredients in 3 percent of products and human DNA in 2 percent.

The $100,000 campaign, which has already received $17,000 in pledges, will pay for 10 such studies, costing $10,000 each, which will be published monthly.

“After these first 10 reports, we kind of see consumers demanding more and more transparency in the industry and having a bigger say in what does the industry adopt,” Ghorashi told Gigaom on Thursday. “The cadence might slow down a bit, given that we’re not crowdfunding additional reports, but we still hope to keep the initiative going and provide value to consumers on an ongoing basis.”

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